Two blocks north from my house, a neighbor flies a large Confederate flag. A half-mile south stands a statue commemorating the Confederate soldiers who fought to save my city from the invading armies of the United States of America. Sadly, I’m told, they failed.
Whenever I ask about these and similar displays of Confederate pride, I’m offered the same tired trope: “It’s about culture not hate.” My response is no less performative and rehearsed: “Yes, but the culture it’s about is a culture of hate.”
My retort never seems to achieve its desired end: a change of heart, a lowering of the flag, renaming buildings honoring a Grand Dragon of the KKK, and a removal of the statue from our town square.
Sometimes, I share a card I had printed up quoting from the Cornerstone Speech delivered March 21, 1861, by Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens at the Athenaeum in Savannah, Georgia. This was an extemporaneous defense of slavery and the inferiority of black people, and laid out the rationale for succession from the United States of America and the “War Against Northern Aggression” that would begin just a few weeks later. According to Stephens, both science and the Bible prove false the 18th century notion that “all men are created equal.” Hence, he said,
“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
Slavery and racism form the bedrock of the culture the Confederate flag and Confederate monuments commemorate and keep alive. Why can’t my neighbors see that?
Sitting with an elderly neighbor on his front porch, our conversation turned to the Civil War. “I had grandfathers fighting in that war,” my neighbor said. Failing to check my Northern privilege, I said, “Oh! On which side?” “The right side,” he said sternly, as if he were talking about his immediate grandfathers, instead of more distant ones. Seeing my surprise, my neighbor explained his ancestors fought to protect their families and their homes and their way of life. When I objected that their way of life was built on racism and slavery, he changed the subject and told me he was thinking of moving further south. While doing some research in preparation for selling his house, he discovered the house was under a covenant that prevented him from selling it to African Americans. “I’m going to see what can be done about that,” he said. Maybe he did. But the house sold to a white family a year or so later.
Last year, someone defaced the statue on the city square with pink paint. A year before that, I tried to hang a sign on the statue containing the Cornerstone Speech with the heading: “This Is What They Fought For; This Is What They Died For.” I couldn’t get the damn poster to stick to the statue. I think there is a message in that. I hope it isn’t one I’m willing to learn.
Read Rabbi Rami's answers to community questions on Black Lives Matter protests.